Every year, Black August serves as a month of reflection, resistance, and education for the Black liberation movement. Initially created in 1979 by movement leaders jailed in California to remember fallen comrades, the month has grown in importance in recent years.
Grassroots International is commemorating the month with a series of reflections from our recent delegation to Haiti. In June, Grassroots and Black Organizing for Leadership and Dignity (BOLD) brought a team of Black women activists to learn from Haitian social movements.
Marie Helene Fabien Hall, a translator for the delegation, spoke with Grassroots International Communications Associate Chris Morrill. She lives in Jackson, Mississippi and supports Cooperation Jackson, a Black and Latinx cooperative economics movement and fellow member of the Climate Justice Alliance.
So you’re back in the States and have had some time to decompress. What are your initial reflections?
Well, a lot has been happening in Haiti since the delegation. I have family that were stuck and unable to travel back to the States like they intended to. It’s an ongoing situation in Haiti.
My understanding is that a lot of the recent protests in Haiti are driven by austerity, both from the IMF and the government itself, such as the fuel price increases. Since you have family there, what response have you seen bubbling up over time?
I remember being there last year around July, watching on television, that unions and workers were asking for a raise from the government. The workers had been organizing to get an increase.
When we were on the delegation, one of the organizations that we went to visit, there was an interview being conducted in another room. They were putting forward the same demand. They were asking again for an increase in the minimum wage which I think at the time was 300 gourde an hour [US $4.45/hour]. Yet the gas prices increased to 309 gourde a liter — more than they were earning. So that was part of the outrage and protest, of course.
But in between last year and this year I saw a deterioration in the system. The government doesn’t have any way of disposing of trash. So I saw so much trash out on the streets mostly made up of plastic bottles, Styrofoam take-out containers, really polluting everywhere. That really shocked me.
I was born in Haiti, I lived in Haiti for 14 years before coming to the states and I’ve never seen Haiti in the condition that it is in today. Ecologically it’s deteriorating, economically it’s deteriorating. And it’s affecting the majority of the people out there on the streets trying to earn a living. The people who have money, who are sending their children to the States or other countries to study, with any type of emergency, they are able to leave Haiti. And the government don’t seem to adequately meet any of the people’s needs or any of their demands. It’s a situation that’s been ongoing and seemingly deteriorating.
How did you get connected to this delegation? What was the significance of it, given your long term connections with Haiti?
Whenever I’ve been to Haiti in the past it’s just been for personal reasons to visit my family. A couple of years ago I decided to retire early and move to Jackson Mississippi because that’s where my grandchildren are. My daughter is part of Cooperation Jackson. I’ve been acting more as a support for them because they are very busy. I’ve been helping take care of the their children. But I have been supporter, and I do see their Freedom Farm. A lot of people are waking up to do urban farming because here in Jackson there is no access to any fresh food.
I got involved with Grassroots International last year through a delegation to Honduras. You had invited Cooperation Jackson to be part of the trip and since I’m familiar with Spanish I went. I saw what Grassroots International is doing there, and that was the first time I’d seen the plight of farmers there. We visited farmers who had nothing and whose houses were filled with bullet holes. Goons from the government would come in and try to wreak havoc. The developers would come and try to take away their land. There was a group of only a dozen men who stayed behind, their families couldn’t even be with them, because these goons were so aggressive. We met with these farmers, we saw how despite all the pressure they were resisting, and we saw how Grassroots was supporting people in resistance.
For the first time that I knew of there was a group of black organizations that were interested in going to Haiti, mainly women, and looking at the movements Grassroots was supporting in Haiti. I’ve been interested in learning about movements in Haiti and I was so happy to be a part of the delegation.
It was so wonderful to see what the MPP (Peasant Movement of Papaye) are accomplishing, the changes they’re making, the true help they are providing to people. They are providing training so people can stand on their own feet and grow their own food and provide a sustainable living for their families. It was just such an encouragement to witness.
Thinking about some of the things you’ve witnessed, and how conscious you’ve been to make these connections, how important is it to make connections between Cooperation Jackson and Haitian movements like the MPP?
Here in the US there are these huge farms that are exploiting Haitians and the migrant workers that are coming over. They have no healthcare and lousy living conditions. They are exploited both in the United States, and outside the U.S., in their own country, so where can they go?
We have to work together when we are living in these depressed areas. We have to try to organize to develop our own housing, to grow our own food so that we can be owners not workers, so that we can determine our own destiny. It’s about finding an alternative to the capitalistic system. To go around, to see other people struggling, to be in solidarity and also offer assistance — these are very important. But I think a lot of people I work with here in the U.S. could immensely benefit from learning from Haitian farmers, how they handle composting, how they built an irrigation system.
This struggle really takes working together and establishing support systems and connections that are outside of your immediate area to a global one because this is something that is affecting everyone. I saw what the people in Honduras were going through; I saw the self-sufficient village. It was something like MPP but not as extensive. At the MPP’s village in Haiti, each family has their own house and their own piece of land where they can cultivate whatever they like. And they have a communal garden where everyone works. It’s a whole new system that’s evolving. And we asked them how they were feeling, and they said their children didn’t even need to go to the doctor because they were eating healthily. So I think that the exchange globally would be really good in helping us to stick to it. I mean MPP has been doing this for more than 40 years, but organizations here like Cooperation Jackson having only been doing this for maybe five.
I think that’s a really good point. By getting a global perspective you also gain a long term perspective. Now that you’re back in Jackson, how do you hope to take what you learned from the delegation back home?
Since we are in the US, we can see policies here that negatively affect other countries. Gina [Ulysse], an author and anthropology professor [who was with us on the delegation] shared with us one of the pieces she wrote about when the US government was thinking about flooding Haiti with peanuts. There was a big movement against it. If it had only been Haiti saying no, probably nothing could have been done, but there were a lot of people here raising their voices and saying no, you can’t do this because you are just flooding their markets with a product that they have and that they are using to make a living with.
So it’s important for Americans to have campaigns and build a movement against some of the U.S. practices and policies affecting these areas and driving people from their homes. Here the farmers that are benefiting from migrant work should be the ones opening up their mouths and saying to their government, “stop! Don’t attack immigrants because you’re not only taking away their means to making a living but you’re also cutting away our work, our manpower.”
We have to be more involved than just talking and meeting about it. We need to be more politically involved. The system needs to be changed. So as long as it stays the same we are all going to suffer the same.
Volunteer transcription provided by Leonie Rauls.